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Philosophy & Public Affairs 30.4 (2001) 387-416

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The Real Tragedy of the Commons

Stephen M. Gardiner

In two celebrated and widely anthologized articles, as well as several books, the biologist Garrett Hardin claims (a) that the world population problem has a certain structure: it is a tragedy of the commons; and, (b) that, given this structure, the only tenable solutions involve either coercion or immense human suffering. 1 In this article, I shall argue for two claims. First, Hardin's arguments are deeply flawed. 2 The population [End Page 387] problem as he conceives it does not have the structure of a commons; and even if it did, this would not necessitate the extreme responses he canvasses. Second, nevertheless, much of Hardin's pessimism is justified. Some environmental problems associated with population size do have tragic structures, although these are of a different form than Hardin envisions. For example, the problem of global climate change has an intergenerational aspect that makes it significantly worse than Hardin's commons, and for this reason (as opposed to Hardin's) extreme responses may be needed to avert environmental catastrophe. 3

I. Hardin's Analysis

In 1804, after a wait of approximately two million years, human population reached one billion. One hundred twenty-three years later in 1927, it topped two billion; thirty-three years later, in 1960, three billion. By 1974, fourteen years later, there were four billion people; thirteen years on, in 1987, five billion; and twelve years after that, in 1999, six billion. 4 This is an amazing rate of progression. Bill McKibben reports that if the world's population had increased by the same number each year throughout its history as it did in 1994, then thinking backwards from its current total, the proverbial Adam and Eve would have to have started out in 1932. 5

There are some positive signs. For example, the rate of increase in the number of humans appears to be slowing down. 6 Nevertheless, since this rate is being applied to an expanding base of people, the absolute number of births will only come down to what it is today by the second quarter of this century. Furthermore, because people are living longer, [End Page 388] the total population will still be rising at the midcentury mark, and will then likely be around nine billion; that is, by around 2054, global population will be fifty percent larger than it is today. Hence, the problem of population growth is very much with us.

Population is a problem because the increased absolute number of people, and the rate of increase itself, are both likely to have a severe impact on the planet. Extra people place extra demands on food, water, and energy supply, and their activities cause environmental damage. So, it is important to understand what or who 7 is causing the problem, and perhaps thereby determine what if anything can be done about it.

Hardin offers some dramatic answers to these questions. First, he claims that the population problem has a special structure--it is a commons problem--and that this structure "remorselessly generates tragedy." 8 The tragedy is that, left to their own devices, people have large families, causing misery to themselves and their communities and untold damage to the environment. Second, Hardin sees the problem as one primarily caused by, and affecting, those in the developing nations. Third, he argues that the only available solutions are severe. In one article, he argues that we should abandon the United Nation's declaration that freedom to reproduce is a fundamental human right. 9 Instead, Hardin thinks, we should use coercive instruments to prevent people from reproducing, or reproducing more than is wanted. In another article, Hardin argues that the affluent nations should refuse to assist their poorer neighbors in times of humanitarian crisis. Instead, he endorses Tertullian's claim that we would be wise to think of "pestillence, famine, wars, and earthquakes" as "prun[ing] away [their] luxuriant growth." 10

Hardin's idea is that the earth provides a corrective to the problem of population through natural...


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pp. 387-416
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Archived 2003
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